Two of the most memorable Bible passages during Christmastide are Luke 1:26-38 and Matt. 1:18-25, tracing the angel’s message of the Incarnation to the Virgin Mary and Joseph, respectively. Yet, as familiar as these passages are to most of us, many of us can scarcely understand what’s going on in either passage.
For example, were Mary and Joseph married at the time of the Annunciation? Why does Matthew refer to Joseph as Mary’s “husband,” yet common translations of Luke have Mary saying to the angel, “I have no husband” (Matt. 1:19; Luke 1:34)? What does it mean that Joseph “took his wife,” or that Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son” (Matt. 1:24-25)?
Jewish weddings have two distinct stages: kiddushin and nisuin. After the first stage, there is a legal marriage that only death or divorce can break. These days, the two stages typically occur in a single ceremony, but because “bachelor pads” weren’t really a thing in antiquity, a first-century husband had some time (upwards of a year) after the wedding to prepare a home for his new wife. By bringing his wife into the home and beginning married life together (nisuin), the marriage process was completed.
Thus, when we hear Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3), we should recognize the marital imagery. He’s saying to the Church that she’s already his bride, and that this life is the short space between the kiddushin and the nisuin—the wedding ceremony and the marital homecoming.
That’s also where we encounter Mary and Joseph on their journey toward Christmas. When we hear that Mary is “betrothed” to Joseph (Matt. 1:18, Luke 1:27), this is a poor translation. They’re not “betrothed” in the sense of a modern “engagement.” They’re legally married and could licitly have sexual relations. That’s why Joseph considers a quiet divorce: because he’s “unwilling to put her to shame” (Matt. 1:19). There was no shame, because everyone would assume that Mary’s child was the son of Joseph (Luke 3:23), and it was perfectly acceptable to get pregnant by your husband in the time between the kiddushin and the nisuin.
And so the first thing we notice is that Mary and Joseph are legally married, and are free to have sexual relations. The second is that, for some reason, they don’t. We see this in the responses of both Mary and Joseph. Yes, the RSVCE records Mary asking Gabriel, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” (Luke 1:34). But as we just saw, she does have a husband. What she actually says is, “How will this be, since I know not a man?”
In other words, she’s not saying she doesn’t have a husband. She’s saying she doesn’t have sex with the husband she has. That’s a much stranger response, but it’s consonant with Joseph’s own response. Remember that he knew both a) that everyone would assume that the child of Mary was his, since they were married, and b) that the child couldn’t possibly be his. The only reason he wouldn’t assume he was the father of the child is if he weren’t (public assumption to the contrary) having relations with his wife.
Early Christian texts claim that Mary had taken some kind of vow of perpetual virginity in the Temple. Whether that’s true or not, we know this much: Mary and Joseph are free to be engaging in licit marital relations, but aren’t. They aren’t at the time the angel Gabriel shows up, and they aren’t after the nisuin, when they start living together.
Here’s where things get really odd: Matthew tells us that Joseph “took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus” (Matt. 1:24-25). To our ears, “took his wife” may sound sexual. It’s not. It’s a reference to the nisuin: Joseph has taken Mary into his home, and the marital process is complete. But “knew her not” is sexual (cf. Gen. 4:1). So we might ask, why are Joseph and Mary still not having sex? There’s no evidence that the angel told either of them to remain celibate, yet they are, even as they’re living under the same roof.
Protestants typically gloss over all of this, because they’re fixated on one word: until. Doesn’t that imply that the two had sex after the birth of Christ?
Such a fixation misses Matthew’s point. As St. Jerome points out, Scripture is full of statements like “even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you” (Isa. 46:4) and “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25). But these don’t mean that God ceases to be God when you’re old or that Christ stops reigning after his final triumph. The inspired authors are simply using “until” language to demark an important period of time.
Matthew’s doing the same thing. His point is that even after the nisuin, Mary and Joseph continued not to have sex. Why does that matter? Because the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 says that a virgin will “conceive and bear” a child.